A great number of musicians, poets, musicologists and critics have attempted a definition of the term ‘Musical Romanticism’ – but there has not been a single simple explanation of the expression so far. It seems even though the main characteristics of the Romantic period can be pinned down, it does neither necessarily mean that they can therefore be found in every piece of music composed during this era, nor that these characteristics will make any sense at first, because very often they are contradicting themselves. Thus a broad overview of the 19th century is the only possibility to understand what Musical Romanticism is and how it started, and how it more or less became the equivalent to the Sturm and Drang movement in German Romantic literature.
There are basically three different definitions of the term ‘Romanticism’ in general, as discussed in D.G. Charlton’s book on the French Romantics. The first possible meaning of the term describes a spiritual state that reached from the Middle Ages right through to the 20th century and therefore includes everything of the ‘new age’. The second definition refers to ‘Romantic’ or ‘Romanticism’ as “imaginatively and emotionally inspired art”1, while the third description mentions the historical use of the term, referring to the so called ‘Romantic movement’ in all the arts, namely literature, art and music.
Even though this gives a fairly clear insight into the general use of the word ‘Romantic’, definitions especially like the last one can nevertheless lead to a lot of confusion. By selecting a certain span of time and calling it the Romantic movement, artists and writers that are either clearly not Romantic ones, or do not consider themselves as such, find themselves included in this era anyway. So even if the Romantic age is always identified as being the first fifty years of the 19th century, and artists who peaked during this period had therefore been born between 1770 and 1815, this does give a slightly wrong impression of the period itself as well as the artists who – fortunately or unfortunately -happened to live at that time. Thus, we have to keep in mind that the term ‘Romantic’ is often used far too loosely.
Even before what we consider as the beginnings of the Romantic period, the actual expression ‘Romantic’ was already in use, especially in 17th century England, where this term was applied to a certain character of a piece of literature, describing the absence of “the real, the concrete, the predictable and the rational”2. A bit later on, the word ‘Romantic’ was associated with the fantastic, the supernatural as well as the free imagination. In general, the term ‘Romanticism’ is applied very freely to the literary as well as the artistic movements of the late 18th and early 19th century. It more or less describes the “new spirit”3 that defined this period. Even though the French Revolution of 1789 is often thought to have marked the beginning of the Romantic period, this is not entirely true.
However, the Bastille had not been stormed without reason. Those people revolting against certain prescribed rules had been forming their views and opinions over the preceding decades, building up a lot of anger towards politics, religion and the social hierarchic system4. They felt the need for a drastic change in all these areas, since people were craving for more freedom to express themselves instead of having to stick to traditional rules imposed by religious and political leaders. The French Romantic writers for example were mainly concerned with the individual as well as the expression of emotions and imaginations.
Thus they wanted to create a literature “of their own age and society”5, especially since literature and particularly poetry had been strongly determined by political and religious circumstances. Turning away from these restrictions, they wanted to create literature that would not only influence people and encourage them to form their own opinions freely, without being dictated what to thing and how to act, but also reflect current affairs. This change in French literature was clearly brought about by the changes in society, and shows very well that social matters were an important aspect in French Romantic literature as well as of course in music.
While the Classical era saw itself as a strong unity of people that outsiders could not disturb without any risk, especially the German Romantics, unlike their French counterparts, did not want to stick together like this. They were not interested in this kind of unity to such an extent, but instead they strongly believed in individuality – the German Romantic artist was proud of his isolation6 and greatness or ‘genius’. On the other hand, the French Romantics were more concerned with general and impersonal issues than with definite and private ones. However, because of this main concern with the universal, they also withdrew themselves into the centre of their inner selves, a feature which actually mainly characterises the German Romantics.
Those artists – poets, painters, musicians – seem to have lived in a dream world, a world of their very own, which they were able to shape the way they wanted it to be, according to what they considered aesthetically beautiful and pleasing, giving them the privilege of looking at society from a very different angle. Living in this vision of their very own, artists were able to express their deepest emotions, dreams and hopes in a completely new and individual way. Of course there was a certain danger involved in such a lifestyle, and in many cases this emotional isolation not only led to extreme melancholy and a feeling of constantly being misunderstood, but also to insanity as well as suicides. But then again, healthy mental states and good general health were normally looked down upon as being banal7 and probably too normal.